“Know mercy for what it is: the plea of the ant to the boot.”
– Queen Elizabeth Alban of Callow
They were a lovely sight, in that terribly foreign way that was the mark of the fae.
Seven of the Fair Folk attacked under cover a rain and thunder, each of them some painter’s wild dream made into flesh. The vanguard came as a matching pair, swift in their stride and a pleasure for the eye to behold: their skin like honey and their eyes a pale grey, they wore cuirasses and vambraces of copper so perfectly burnished they looked like the surface of a still pond. Beneath those a long robe ending in skirts had been woven of dead grass in grey and yellow, the colours perfectly matching those of their long and flowing hair. Each bore a single long blade, fashioned whole from what seemed like a single strand of dead grass – the straight edges of the blades crooned as they touched the winds, though, as if they were so keen even the storm was cut by their touch. They were titled, both of them. I could feel it. Yet they were not among the greats of whatever Court had sent them, servants of higher powers.
One such power stood behind them. Towering in height but slender in his build, the fae was a splendid sight: an armoured and tunic of woven brass and bright-red flame, glittering with rubies, went down to his thighs, loose and long-sleeved. Below, long skirts that were a netting of gold filled with brass yet as supple as cloth swung over black-skinned bare feet. What little skin was left bare by the slender helm of brass and smouldering charcoal, its long cheek guards of carved red opal going down to a round collar of gold touched with flickering embers, was just as dark in tone. As if the two burning red eyes set in the elegant face had charred the fae entirely, I thought. In his right hand was held a rounded kite shield, woven together from frozen bright-red fire, while in his left he held a bastard sword hilted in gold and ruby but whose blade was pitch-black and smouldering.
I caught sight of the last four, before the storm swept over me, but only glimpses. A tall woman bearing a great antlered helm, or perhaps antlers, face painted with streaks of blood-red and bone-white as she wielded a spear of twisted bone. A small figure, almost childlike, trailing long strands of straw like a dress or a cape and whisper-swift on its feet. A calm-faced man wearing a strangely nostalgic smile, sprouts of green twisting around him like a bandolier and a quiver. And behind them all, an amber-eyed woman with a sizzling grin, messy hair swept around by the wind as lightning crackled up her frame and she guided the storm. That one was the most powerful among them, I sensed, and if she was not at least a Duchess I would eat my own hand. There was no time to consider that in depth, though, for the wind and rain and lightning hit me like someone had thrown a damned wall at me.
I took half a step back, cursing, and had to shift my weight so I wouldn’t be outright blown off. My mantle flapped like a banner behind me, and I dragged my crown down on my brown so it wouldn’t fly off. This wouldn’t do, I couldn’t see a bloody thing in this wind and rain and –
“Bordel de merde,” I swore in Chantant, throwing myself to the side even as lightning struck.
It still singed the edge of my face, and I grimaced at the burning of my skin. My hair might well have caught fire, if not for the rain. I rolled up into a kneel and drew deep of the Night as I brought up my staff, only to smash it down on the stone. The thing with Night was that, for all its wondrous flexibility, it tended to fare pretty badly in straight-up fights against other powers. Light most of all, but sorcery tended to come out on top as well and I suspected that the work of the fae would behave just the same. Night was the power of a thief, not a soldier, and always shone best when there was no struggle to be had. Which was why even though these days I probably had as much raw might to throw around as my current opponent, if not more, I did not try to unmake the storm. Instead a bursting bubble of darkness spreading out created an oasis of calm within it before fading but leaving the boundary maintained. I rose gingerly to my feet.
“Come now,” I said. “If I know a single thing about the likes of you lot, it’s that you literally cannot refuse an invitation like this. Don’t be so coy, my lords and ladies.”
A rich chuckle answered me as the dark-skinned fae that wore flame like cloth strode out of the storm in front of me, bare feet not even a whisper against the stone. His sword stayed pointing at the ground, his shield loose in his grip.
“It is my honour to make your acquaintance, Queen of Lost and Found,” the burning-eyed fae said. “Your cavalier grave-robbing of Winter is legend among our kind.”
Distraction, I mused. He might as well have it carved into his forehead – which meant the twins were either about to flank me or already using the storm as cover to burst out and make a run at Masego’s quarters. If it was the latter, I could only trust in the ability of Roland and the Blessed Artificer.
“And who is it that I speak to?” I replied, clicking my tongue. “What Court boasts such poor manners?”
Dead grass, fire, harvest, hunt and storms. Tough the spread of those displayed dominions was not small, it did bring a season to my mind over others. Best to have it confirmed by fae tongue, though.
“Manifold apologies, Your Majesty,” the fae bowed. “I am the Count of Ravenous Flame, presently at your service and ever to that of my master, the Prince of Falling Leaves.”
Fuck, I thought. So they really were here to prove the Hunted Magician’s epithet was well-deserved. Yet beneath the dismay there was something like triumph: Masego, that glorious bastard, had been right once again. Somewhere out there the ruling mantle of the Court of Autumn still existed. There was evidently a lot more power left to it than we’d believed, if there were enough nobles left to call on to assault the Arsenal, but the principle of Quartered Seasons had been sound all long even if we’d been unable to prove it.
“You’ve given me a greater gift than you know, Count,” I grinned. “So I give you this in return: if you flee now, I will not pursue.”
To my surprise, the nobleman bowed.
“Your capricious arrogance was everything I hoped it would be,” the Count of Ravenous Flame replied, “count no debt here, Queen of Lost and Found, for anything I might have gifted by happenstance has been repaid twice over.”
The moment he began talking I knew where this was headed: as the Count spoke the last word of his superficially friendly answer, I took a sudden step back and avoided getting skewered by two crooning blades as they thrust where I had been standing a heartbeat before. By the height, the blows would have slid between two of my ribs and punctured my throat. I was almost admiring: fae were rarely so precise in their attempted murder, or so flawlessly synchronized. I was not, however, so admiring that I did not immediately punish that predictable flair for the theatrical: the rightmost of twin fae in copper and grass was smashed in the back of the head by my staff, which sent it stumbling into the other’s way. They both spun away towards the Count, smooth in their recovery, so I tossed a handful of blackflame at the left one’s grass skirts and watched the flame take with some satisfaction. It cut away the grass-cloth before the burn could spread, but by then I was gathering Night and our little skirmish had borne more pressing developments. The Count of Ravenous Flame entered the fray.
“A spark, a birth,” the Count sang, his voice soothing like the warm crackling of bonfires.
As he strode forward, he trailed sparks. I would have interrupted whatever it was he was doing but the rightmost twin kept me busy: its wings burst to life in a flicker and it used a beating of them to help itself into a backwards leap that would have led it behind me, blade at the ready, if I’d not traced a trail of blackflame in the path. The wings beat again, ending the leap, but by then I’d positioned my staff under it and let loose with a concentrated burst of Night. I caught only its shoulder, but that much I tore right through. The fae screamed in pain, but by then then Count of Ravenous Flame had gotten just enough time to proceed unimpeded.
“A hunger, a swell,” the Count sang, voice gone the way of the blaze. “I command you, dimming fire, herald of plenty to lack: devour all you behold, ravenously.”
The sparks had strengthened, turned to flame, and been swept up in the thunderstorm around us. Only instead of being put out by the rain the fire had spread, as if the very wind was oil, and a howling blaze surrounded us even as the ember-eyed Count of Autumn laughed.
“Perish,” he told me, “so thoroughly that naught of you is left to be lost or found.”
Damn, I thought, reluctantly impressed. That was a pretty good line to kill me on, if he could pull it off. Already Night was coursing through my veins and as the Count of Ravenous Flame raised his black blade high, heat and fire swirling around it as he commanded the blazing storm, I began shaping my answer.
“The hand in greed can only clutch sand,
Even exquisite passion, the lover’s brand
Is a vainglorious army headed for rout:
Ardour fall spent, the flame gutters out.”
The verse was spoken in Chantant, barely more than a whisper against the roar of the blaze, and yet it slithered through the burning storm like snake. I knew the voice that’d recited it, that deep and resonant tone that was decadently pleasing to the ear, and the sorcery it was laced with ate at the gathered fires like spreading rot. Even as the Count of Ravenous Flame fought to keep hold of it, the Exalted Poet’s verse tore at his work like some divine candle snuffer. An opening, I thought with a wolf’s smile, and abandoned the spinning threads I’d been about to shape Night into in favour of something with a little more bite. When the twin fae came for me this time, wielding their blades of grass, I was ready for them and without a distraction to handle.
One came high, leap aided by wings as its blade whistled down towards my skull, while the other came low: knees bending low beyond what a human body would have allowed, its sword whipped out aiming for the femoral artery on my left leg. It was a close thing, spinning my staff so that the lower part went up and swatted aside the strike about to cut into my skull while the upper part going down nudged the other blow to pass harmlessly between my legs, but worth the risks: with the two fae over-extended in their strikes, neither of them were able to avoid my reply. Two small tendrils of Night sprang out of my staff, shooting out and puncturing the skin of the fae near the throat. The moment they did I dumped all the power I’d gathered, in just the right way, and I got maybe two heartbeats before the fae managed to retreat far enough the tendrils broke.
“You may consider this end,” I told them, “courtesy of Mighty Urulan, once of Great Lotow.”
I’d never seen anyone melt from the inside before, but considering the sheer among of acid I’d pumped into their veins it was no surprise that within moment the two fae were bleeding, broken corpses-to-be falling apart as they tried to crawl away. As I’d thought, that was a particularly nasty trick to be on the receiving end of when your body wasn’t entirely made up of smoke and mirrors.
“Dieux du ciel,” the Fallen Monk hoarsely said, sounding sickened.
The Exalted Poet’s trick – had that been an aspect or was he potentially more useful than I’d thought? – had killed the flame and the storm with it, restoring a broader line of sight to me. The Fallen Monk, looking more than a little singed and bleeding from messy wounds on his shoulder and belly, threw a wineskin into the path of a sapling-green arrow loosed by the fae adorned in vines I’d glimpsed earlier. The arrow sprouted wild growth as red wine sloshed all over the ground, a young tree falling on the stone and spasming a few times before it began to swiftly wither. That explained the messy wounds, I thought. The Monk had been quick enough to rip the arrows out before that could happen inside his body. Good on him, Named or not those roots would have shredded muscles. The Exalted Poet himself was bruised and battered, but there was a reason he’d been able to ply his tricks: he was currently without an opponent.
Given the lack of corpses and two missing fae – the childlike one wearing straw and the antlered huntress in blood and bone – I’d bet that they had casually slapped him down before making a run upwards. The telltale noises of battle sorcery being used further up good as confirmed it, Roland seemingly making a gallant effort of swatting the fae back down. The real threat, though, was the fae still in the back. The grinning one with the amber eyes, who’d opened the games by casually throwing an entire storm at us. She still there, grin broader than ever as she watched us struggle. You’re the most powerful of this pack, I thought, so you have to be a at least a Duchess. A Count would not defer to her otherwise. So why was I finding these opponents so… lacking? Perhaps it was simply that I was no longer a squire or a bastard duchess of my own, and that I’d faced greater monsters since, but I’d just ridden a Baron of Autumn down a drop and killed him without much effort.
Something was wrong here.
Boots squelching wetly as I walked through the dissolved remains of the twin fae, I rolled my shoulder to limber it.
“Poet,” I said, “help the Monk. I’ll be handling our friend the Count, and the kind lady out back if she’d care to introduce herself?”
A lie, I did not intend to have them fight any of these three right now if I could avoid it, but it was a useful lie so long as the grinning fae heard it.
“You presume much, mortal,” the Count of Ravenous Flame chided me.
His long blade rose, and his shield rose with it. I flicked a glance at the Exalted Poet and got a nod confirming he’d heard. Good, I could put most of my attention on the last two then.
“Where’s all that sweet queen talk gone, Count?” I grinned. “Still, if you keep talking for your lady I’ll have to assume she’s a mute – or that you have the right to choose her words for her.”
The Count seemed to shrink on himself at that. Fear, I judged. That’d been hard, blood-curling fear at even the possibility that the fae behind him might take offence to his behaviour. That went some way in confirming the pecking order, at least. The Prince of Falling Leaves might be his ultimate master, but where there was a captain there was a lieutenant.
“My dear Aedon is guilty of only eagerness to serve me,” the amber-eyed fae laughed. “But your point is taken, Queen of Lost and Found. You stand before the Duchess of Rash Tempest.”
“Delightful name,” I smiled, all pretty and friendly with just a little too much teeth. “Would you mind ordering your servants to cease attempting to murder mine as long as we are talking? It’s most uncivilized.”
“Alas, oath was given,” the Duchess shrugged. “I cannot recall those I have sent.”
“But our green-clad friend here…” I suggested, gesturing towards the fae archer facing the Poet and the Monk.
“That boon I can deliver,” the Duchess of Rash Tempest grinned, “for a price.”
Ah, and now we came to the bargaining. If I could keep her talking, and the two fae with her down here with us, then I might be able to send my own two companions upwards to help Roland and the Artificer before all of us came down to tangle with these three together. The key to keeping control of this would be offering terms before she could make demands, since letting fae pick their careful words was a good way to get stabbed by them.
“I’ll offer you the last words of a king,” I said, “and the dream of a hard-fought defeat, not a decade old.”
The Duchess went still. Yeah, I’ve dealt with your kind before, I thought with grim amusement as something like greed seized those amber eyes. I know what your lot is hungry for.
“A generous offer,” the Duchess of Rash Tempest said, “perhaps too generous.”
So she wanted to avoid being in my debt if I was judged to have overpaid, huh. Fair enough.
“I would consider us even, given the might of your servants and the feebleness of mine,” I replied.
I heard the Fallen Monk let out a snort of laughter, and the Exalted Poet an indignant yelp – though he took an arrow in the thigh not long after, and I was interested to see he produced a strip of parchment as he sang a verse in what I thought might be Ceseo. Though the sprout-arrow savaged his flesh, by the time the verse had been fully recited it had turned to dust and the Poet’s flesh was healed, if heavily scarred.
“Then by these terms I strike bargain with you, Queen of Lost and Found,” the Duchess of Rash Tempest said.
“Bargain struck,” I agreed. “You two, hurry up and help the Rogue and the Artificer with-”
There was a blinding flash of light, or perhaps Light, and something like a massive thudnerstrike sounded, followed by an inhuman scream.
“That,” I completed. “Help them with that.”
“At your service, mistress,” the Fallen Monk said, sounding deeply amused.
“Are you certain you would not like me to remain and record-” the Poet began, then I turned a dark look onto him, “- your wisdom touches me, Black Queen, and so I promptly heed it.”
They moved, and for now I put them out of my mind.
“Amusing,” the Duchess of Rash Tempest said. “Yet you tarry in fulfilling our bargain.”
“I would never,” I smiled, then added in Crepuscular, “My crown I abdicate, and let the worthiest of you bear it.”
Larat had been king for a moment, after all, even if his first and last decree had been one of abdication.
“I do not know this tongue,” the Duchess hissed.
“Then you should have bargained more precisely,” I chided her. “But perhaps this will be more to your taste?”
I wove a bubble of Night carefully, using strands of the vision Sve Noc had given of the battle between the Dead King and Vesena Spear-Biter’s sigil, and blew it towards her. I had no intention whatsoever of giving her any of my memories, even if she might have taken that from the sentence. Disappointment flickered, but hunger won over it soon enough. The Duchess of Rash Tempest’s lips opened in a sigh, as the bubble landed on her palm, and she laid delicate fingers against the Night.
The bubble popped.
I’d offered her the dream, not the right to see it, and if she had been unable to keep that dream once given that was hardly my fault, was it? The Duchess turned her amber eyes to me, her face gone frozen with hate.
“What a clever creature you are,” she said.
“Nah,” I denied, “you’re just not as good as this as you think you are.”
“Neither are you, I’m afraid,” the Duchess replied.
The bowstring twanged and a green arrow whistled as it was loosed at me and I was forced to hastily duck out of the way. Ah, true. While I’d bargained for her servants to stop fighting mine we’d never said anything about them fighting me. The Count of Ravenous Flame sprung forward, bare feet unseemly quick as his eldritch sword and board came barrelling towards me.
“Hey, Duchess,” I grinned, even as I gathered Night. “Wanna make a bet?”
“Why would I, when you’ve proved such a feckless debtor?” the amber-eyed fae replied.
The Count was on me before I could answer, sword down and pointing towards me as his shield crackled with the sound of flame. At the last moment he shifted his footing a step and a half to the right, revealing the green arrow whose whistle the crackling had been meant to hide, and clove at my side. I swallowed a curse, for it’d been clever work, but with my free hand caught the edge of the Mantle of Woe and swept it around me. It caught the arrow, but my hasty attempt to push back the cleave with a strike of my staff had me on the losing side. I was thrown back two paces, rolling only to rise into another arrow, perfectly aimed at my throat. A lash of Night erupted from my hand to torch it, but once more the Count of Ravenous Flame smashed into me from the side. A staff was not a sword, with a guard and a proper grip, so even though I caught the blow again the strength of it had the Count’s blade sliding down and biting into the flesh of my hand. I half lost a finger there and felt something unpleasant slithering into my blood from the wound.
“Back,” I snarled, and Night flooded my veins.
It purged the poison, feeling like ice coursing through me. I struck my staff against the ground, Night billowing out like a wave, and the arrow loosed at me was swept aside even as the Count of Ravenous Flame retreated out of range with a wing-aided leap backwards. I forced calm onto myself, even as blood dripped down my knuckles.
“I get it,” I told the Duchess of Rash Tempest, “you don’t believe you’d be able to get the best of me, if we had a wager. I sympathize, it’s a regrettably common affliction.”
“You are attempting to goad me,” the amber-eyed fae said.
“I am succeeding at goading you,” I corrected with an unpleasant smile. “To quote a clever creature of my own acquaintance: a well-laid trap does not rely on surprise but on the opponent’s nature.”
She had to accept a bet, if I offered it and it looked like she might win. Because she was better than me, greater and cleverer, and she must always get the last laugh with us poor mortals.
“You witty little thing,” the Duchess laughed. “What might you even offer as a wager worthy of my time?”
“A duel with Count of Ravenous Flame,” I said, “where I will be considered to have lost if I kill him with either Night or my staff.”
“You insolent insect,” the Count snarled.
“Those are all you have,” the Duchess of Rash Tempest said, and then looked like she had swallowed a lemon. “I accept, you fool.”
How unpleasant it must be, to be able to see the shape of the snare but be driven by your nature to step into it anyway.
“Should I win I want you to answer me five questions, fully and true,” I said.
“Should you lose I will have your name, freely given,” the Duchess replied.
Ambitious, but then if it got to that the odds were better I’d die.
“Bargain struck,” I said.
“Bargain struck,” she echoed. “My Count of Green Apples, do head upwards.”
Count of Green Apples? No, it wasn’t the same. It was the Duke of Green Orchards that we’d fought at Dormer all those years ago. And yet when my gaze found the fae in question, he offered me a sly smile before wings bloomed at his back. His face… It’d been a while since I’d thought of the opponent of that night, the creature who’d butchered my Gallowborne and burned Nauk into a mere shadow of himself, but I was nearly certain there was a resemblance there. That was troubling, considering I’d been very thorough about killing that Duke and Hierophant himself had pulverized what had been left of the remains. I didn’t have the time to ponder that any further, though, because the moment the bargain had been struck my duel with the Count had begun. I breathed out, settled myself.
A duel, huh.
“Gods,” I murmured, “it’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
The Count of Ravenous Flame advanced in his full splendour, armour glittering in the eerie light of the Belfry, a flick of his long sword gathering bright-red flame along the edge. It was tempting to watch the feet, for against all sorts of opponents the footing told a truer tale of intent than the guard, but against fae it was next to useless. Their bodies did not entirely work like those of mortals, and wings allowed them to further differ from what even Named could accomplish. My right hand was slick with blood, but the same numbing of sensation that had prevented my leg from hampering me kept the throbbing pain of it quiet, and as I widened my stance and drew a foot back I seized the long staff of yew like a spear without a tip. Far above us sorcery crackled, and voices both human and not mingled in war cries.
“Burn,” the Count of Ravenous Flame hissed.
He swung his sword and a wave of flame followed, hiding him from my sight, but I’d seen that tactic used before. Used it myself, even back when I still had ice to throw around. Night gathered at the tip of my staff, forming into a full circle hovering just beyond the wood, and when the Count burst out of his own obscuring wave of flame with his sword half-swung and shining red wings behind him, it was to eat a blast of pure Night in the stomach that smashed him back. My turn. I slipped through the opening in the flame, Mantle of Woe trailing behind me, and even as Night gathered at the of the staff I thrust at the Count’s chest. He recovered in time, though, shield covering him and the small burst of power that followed impact slid off harmlessly. He raised his shield, smashing down the point of my staff, but I deftly withdrew and slid in a strike just over the rim of his descending shield.
It was slapped away with the side of his blade, followed by a beautiful pivot to turn that slap into a backswing straight at my neck. I ducked low, swing passing overhead, but my unstable footing was punished by a hasty kick that hit my chest and had me falling backwards. I abandoned the staff to break the fall with my hands, weaving Night and leaving it to clatter against the ground even as the red-eyed Count adjusted his footing and prepared for a thrust that would go right through my throat.
“Gotcha,” I smiled, pulling at the slender strings of Night connecting my hands to the staff.
The length of yew smashed through the back of the Count’s feet, toppling him, and by the time he’d broken the fall with his wings the staff was in my hands and pointed right at his head. A slender arrow of Night, not powerful but quick and piercing, tore right through the golden round collar and into flesh. Not so quickly it was not slapped aside by a strike of the shield before it could go through the fae’s throat, but that was the opening I’d been waiting for. In striking, he’d exposed his shield arm – the arrow released, I wielded the staff to hit his exposed elbow before releasing a small burst of Night. Not enough to hurt, but enough to continued feeding the momentum of the movement. He kept spinning, sword arm rising to stabilize his footing, and there I struck again: the piercing arrow of Night went through the wrist like a harpoon, I dragged him back in a spin and the sword the fingers had been grasping went flying.
Without hesitation I threw my staff down onto his knees, impeding his attempt to twist around. One, two, three limping steps to the side, and even as Night flowed through my veins and lent me unnatural precision the Count of Ravenous Flame turned, just in time to watch my fingers close around the hilt of his sword. Burning eyes widened in fear as I stretched out with a grunt and turned that catch into a descending thrust. The shield went up, or would have if my free hand had not pulled at the strings on the staff to smack its length down onto the fae’s wrist. It slowed the defence just long enough that my thrust drove deep between those lovely red eyes, finding a deadly sheath. Silence followed in my wake, as I flicked my wrist and ripped the sword clear of the corpse.
“Damn me, but I I’ve missed this,” I admitted with a sigh.
The enemy and I in the pit, fighting to the death, without any of the unending shades and subtleties that my life held these days. Just steel and cunning and the desperate need to live. My eyes went to the amber-eyed Duchess, finding her looking furious.
“You owe me five questions,” I said.
“Ask them,” the Duchess of Rash Tempest snarled.
“Who rules the Court of Autumn?” I asked.
Which meant the mantle was laying there for the taking, if we could just find it. My blood thrummed with excitement. It could be done. The second part of Masego’s theory, the one that made a weapon of the crown, it was possible. We might yet kill a god, or do something a great deal worse.
“Why have you come here?” I asked.
“To collect a debt left unpaid,” the Duchess said.
I waited patiently.
“And to repay that which we owe,” she added.
Been hoping I’d ask the next question before she was finished answering, huh? It wasn’t my first time interrogating her kind, I wouldn’t fall for that.
“Who do you owe that debt to?” I pressed.
“She who told us where the Hunted Magician is,” she grimaced. “The Wandering Bard.”
Fucking finally, I thought, satisfaction welling up inside me. I’d gotten it out of the mouth of fae, entities that literally could not lie: the Intercessor had attacked a villain protected by the Terms. Even the Grey Pilgrim would have to bend his neck now. Every single Named in the Grand Alliance would get a warning about the Bard being a hostile and dangerous entity. A warning backed by the most prominent heroes of the age as well as my own not inconsiderable reputation, let her try to talk her way out of that.
“In what way are you to repay the debt?” I asked.
“We are to destroy the contents of a certain room,” the Duchess of Rash Tempest said, “and break a sword.”
Shit, they’re going after the Severance as well, I realized. Had I been right, was the Intercessor really just trying to strip away every path out of the deeps we were swimming in except the one she’d let Hasenbach find? If so, this was just the beginning of our troubles.
“Do you have any allies in the Arsenal that are not fae?” I asked.
“Yes,” the Duchess said. “Though I know not their identity, only that they can make themselves known to us through a certain phrase.”
I supposed keeping the fae in the dark about the traitor Named was only natural, given the number of mages here we had that’d be able to rip that information out of them.
“Victory is transient,” the Fallen Monk said, sliding a dagger into my jugular.